Can Pabst Blue Ribbon become cool again?

February 10, 2019
Julie Myers, Freelance Writer
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Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) became the hipster beer of choice in 2006 but began to lose its cool factor in 2014. Several elements contributed to this.

First, a highly publicized lawsuit between Pabst Brewery Co. and Miller-Coors in 2014 underscored that Pabst did not make its own beer. Millennials will not tolerate inauthenticity.

Second, hipsters famously dislike being called hipsters. The term is pejorative to a group that prides itself on its individuality. So, any product which is an overt badge of hipsterism is, sooner or later, going to be jettisoned by them.

What were once funny characterizations have become the most obnoxious clichés. Undoubtedly, the marks of a hipster include vintage flannel, thick-framed glasses, fixed-gear bicycles, Pabst Blue Ribbon, American Spirit/Parliament cigarettes, and of course porno mustaches.

Millennial Magazine, Jan. 6, 2016

Third, millennials grew older, more affluent, and switched to beers that could play better into their desire for cultural one-upmanship.

Above all, hipsters wanted to be recognized for being different – to diverge from the mainstream and carve a cultural niche all for themselves.

Matt Granfield, Hipster Mattic

PBR must emphasize unpretentiousness

PRB has always been a cheap, watery, no-nonsense beer. There is nothing fancy about it. It is the beer your drink when you mow the lawn, paint the kitchen cabinets, clean out the garage, or cook burgers on the grill.

  • At heart, PBR is unpretentious. If PBR is to survive, it is by being proudly unpretentious.
  • In the past, PBR did little to no mainstream marketing. Now it has to push its message to a broader audience. It can no longer rely completely on fickle millennials who have already turned their attention to more complex beers.
  • Miller Light, Corona Extra, Bud Light, Natural Light, and Busch are among the 10 best-selling beers in America, according to VinePair. PBR shows up in the 16th spot. None of the top brands got there based on taste. Instead, their success is based on branding and marketing.

PBR cannot regenerate it coolness

Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) became the hipster beer of choice around 2006. By 2010, it was outselling both Coors and Sam Adams.

Studies published in the Journal of Consumer Research dissected why hipsters elevated PBR from an iconic blue collar beer to a cool brand.

  • A 2014 study by Caleb Warren and Margaret C. Campbell found that "bounded autonomy" resulted in PBR being perceived as a cool brand. Bounded autonomy is defined as a small divergence from norms that are seen as unnecessary or illegitimate. Consumers who want to express this goal will choose brands like PBR that deviate from mainstream marketing without going to extremes. PBR's lack of mainstream or traditional marketing (lack of ubiquity) reinforced this autonomy factor.
  • A 2010 study by Katherine E. Loveland, Dirk Smeesters, and Naomi Mandel linked the preference for nostalgic brands like PBR with a need to belong and favorable childhood associations.
  • A 2018 study by Caleb Warren and Gina S. Mohr examined ironic consumptions and found that hipsters (young, urban consumers) "revalue" items like PBR and trucker hats and activities like bingo and knitting because ironic consumption signals one meaning to an in-group, who is likely to understand the irony, and another meaning to out-groups, who are unlikely to pick up on the irony. In other words, consumption of blue collar products by hipsters is ironic and is used like a secret handshake to signal belonging to a certain tribe.

Hipsters want brag-worthy beers

In 2015, Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) began to show slowing sales. By 2018, millennial lifestyle websites pronounced Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) flat.

Millennials no longer want to drink a cheap, shitty beer with blue collar undertones. They have shifted to craft beers, microbrews, heritage beers, local beers, sour beers and high-gravity beers. All of these beers have bragging rights – stories – that are highly personal and sincere.

Anyone drinking PBR now is either some kind of weird stubborn holdover or just hasn’t gotten the memo.

Tracy Moore, MEL

Hipsters care about the back story

Hipsters drink beers they can talk about. The back story of PBR no longer has the same genuinely retro appeal it did. It is under new ownership by a Russia-connected partnership.

MillerCoors has produced Pabst Brewing Co. beers in 1999 but this fact blew up in the media in 2018 when MillerCoors and Pabst wound up in court in over MillerCoors' threats to stop production. Although the suit was settled, with an agreement, it became in-your-face knowledge that Pabst does not brew its beers.... and that a PBR is basically interchangeable with a Miller Light.

But this does not mean people are really gravitating to craft beers based on taste. More than anything, coolness matters. Some of the most successful craft breweries are releasing light ales in recognition of this, instead of heavier and more hoppy beers typical of the craft genre.

For a lot of folks who are drinking it, they're not craft beer fans looking for a specific style. The fact it's a craft beer brand is less important than the fact it's a cool brand.

Jamie Smith, Director of Marketing for Firestone Walker

PRB is no longer a stars-and-stripes beer

Pabst Brewing Company boasts that it is the largest American-owned brewery and says it "takes pride in brewing beers that have become iconic, cherished American brands. Established in 1844, Pabst Brewing Company has over 30 beers in its portfolio, including Old Milwaukee, Colt 45, Olympia, Tsingtao, Lone Star, Schlitz, Ranier, Stroh's, and Blatz.

Pabst Brewing Company was bought in 2014 by the Russian-born beer entrepreneur Eugene Kashper in partnership with TSG Consumer Partners, a San Francisco-based equity firm. However, the initial media release said the company was bought by Oasis Beverages, a Russian beer enterprise founded by Kashper.

Kashper emigrated to the U.S. from Leningrad when he was six years old and became an American citizen within a few years. After college, he worked in Moscow for Ernst & Young (EY). He left EY in 1994 to start his beer career with the Stroh Brewery Company of Detroit. In 2008, he co-founded Cyprus-based Oasis Beverages, which has quickly become the largest independent brewer in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

Although Kashper is Russian-American, his financial ties are to Russia more than the U.S. It hurts the image of an all-American beer brand.

Fortunately, taste doesn't matter

The best-selling beers in America didn't achieve their success based on taste. In 2015, the Daily Meal ran a blind taste test of the top-selling beers and the biggest brands were universally panned. Busch Light was called "an offense to beer everywhere." Natural Light was called a "football tailgate beer." Tasters called the aroma of Corona Extra "skunky." Miller Light one a universal "This tastes like nothing." Only Michelob and Heineken ranked well in the taste test - yet they are at the bottom for sales.

Clearly, the American majority prefers watery, tasteless beer. The Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, Patch. and Esquire have all explored the reasons for the American preference for bland beer. Ranjut Dighe, a professor of economics at State University of New York at Oswego, wrote a research paper on the subject. In the late 1800s, factory workers paid more for weak beer so they could have it with lunch at a tavern during the workday and not get drunk. When Prohibition closes 1,568 breweries, American drinkers forgot all about stout, powerful beers. The notion of beer as a "beverage of moderation" persists until today – and is largely responsible for the popularity of bland beers.

PBR just needs a brilliant ad agency

There's no point to saving PBR unless Pabst Brewing Company can find a way to make its products after its contract with MillerCoors ends. Ideally, Pabst Brewing Company would buy a shuttered brewery and begin its own production. Then it would actually have a product to attach its label to, honestly.

Besides that, PBR and its brother brands need a strong creative agency. An agency capable of repeating the success of Budweiser's Whassup frogs circa 1999 to 2002.... or any of the following funny (and frequently sexist) commercials.

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Brand Stampede LLC is the rebranded identity of MiamiWriter, a copywriting consultancy founded in 2000 by Julie Myers.
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I am a Florida-based freelance copywriter who works with clients across the U.S. and globally. My specialty is creating voices for experiential brands and using them consistently across digital and traditional channels. I have been a copywriter for 30 years and have loved (almost) every minute of it.

To solve a problem, begin by looking at it in new ways. Asking new questions will result in new answers.

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